Stumpkin

Given that Hallowe’en has and will always have a special place in my heart, I try to produce some good Hallowe’en books for the Changeling every year, and  I also try to let you all know about them in case you’re as avid a Hallowe’en fan as I am! In the past we’ve seen my all-time favourite (How to Make Friends with a Ghost), some books for younger kids (Scary, Scary Halloween, Ten Timid Ghosts, and Ghosts in the House!), and two good picture books (Room on the Broom and I Am a Witch’s Cat).

This year I was at a loss, but absolutely determined to turn up something good for the Changeling. Everything I saw was too cute or too scary, too young or too old, etc. Then I saw Stumpkin by Lucy Ruth Cummins (also illustrator of This Is Not a Valentine, so I guess I really like her!), and it’s cute without being sweet, not at all scary but still Hallowe’eny, young without being silly, and, I think, a very worthy addition to the world of Hallowe’en stories. (I bought my copy at the Brookline Booksmith, a lovely store. Surely you can find a copy at your local book shop, too! If not, the link I provided is to the Brookline Booksmith– and they ship. No excuses!)

Stumpkin.jpg

Warning: I haven’t actually read this with the Changeling yet, so I don’t have her perspective, but I think I know her well enough by now to be pretty certain of her taste. (It’s her morning surprise for Hallowe’en. YES I KNOW I’M A SOFTIE I DON’T CARE!)

The first thing to know is that this isn’t a story about ghosts or witches or hauntings; there’s no graveyard or ghoul, and costumes do not play a major role. Rather, it’s a story about fitting in, being loved, and finding your home and your family.

So what does that have to do with Hallowe’en?

Well, Stumpkin the pumpkin is practically perfect– except that he lacks a stem. He watches sadly as, day after day, every other pumpkin is taken to a new home to light up houses on Hallowe’en. Every other pumpkin– except him. I won’t spoil the exciting finish for you, but I will say that poor Stumpkin’s plight speaks to every kid who’s been the last one chosen in gym class, who stood miserably on the sidelines of dances, or who got used to carrying a book or some knitting along with them because they just knew they’d be left out.

And yet Stumpkin reassures us in the end that each of us has a place and a home (I’ll stop there– no spoilers!).

(Also, what better time of year is there to discover where you belong than the day when identities are turned upside-down and you can be whoever you wish to be?)

Aesthetically, this book is just perfect for the text (illustrations rendered in gouache, pencil, ink, and brush marker). The feel is young without being juvenile, and the palette (mostly black and white with pops of orange and green) has a gloriously vintage feel without being too sophisticated for the language of the book.

The message is important, the look and feel are beautiful, but I’m going to tell you what I love best about this book, what I’m really looking forward to with the Changeling. You see, we haven’t talked about this very much, you and I, but the Changeling has become a pretty good reader in her own right. She’s been reading the Catwings series by Ursula Le Guin and Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary.

So why didn’t I get her something a bit older for Hallowe’en?

Well, a) I didn’t see anything at her reading level which spoke to me (that’s probably on me; I’m sure the books are out there and I just didn’t find anything in time); b) I have long felt that even when kids start reading chapter books on their own, we should keep them reading picture books simultaneously; c) following from that last point, I felt that Stumpkin hit all the right notes for my Changeling, and I want her to read it.

So, then, what is it I particularly love about Stumpkin? Well, my girl, just starting Kindergarten and beginning to encounter certain social issues (what it means to be teased or left out, etc.), will read a story about finding your home, not being alone in the world, and being accepted for who you are. She’ll read this in a book that’s not too sophisticated to be understood, and in a medium which isn’t in the least didactic. That, I think, is worth its weight in Hallowe’en treats.

Also? Bringing us back to the part where I say I know my Changeling’s taste in books?

Stumpkin has a cat in it.

Yeah, she’ll love it. I hope you do, too!

And do you know any other great Hallowe’en books? Tell us in the comments!

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The Dam

Ever since I read Town Is by the Sea, I’ve been looking for more books with a similar muted aesthetic, as deep a tone and complex an atmosphere, and which nevertheless manage to be as fresh, original, and necessary as Town Is by the Sea. In short, I wanted more, but not more of the same.

A couple of weeks ago I arrived at my local shop and my favourite shop lady (I should get her permission to use her name on the blog…) was on the phone with the owner, Terri. She told Terri I’d just walked in (I love these people, it’s why I give them all my money) and Terri said, “Has she seen The Dam?” I hadn’t, so the shop lady handed it over, and, after the briefest glance at the cover, I helplessly gave her my credit card. Terri, even without being in the room, had managed to find me the book I’d been looking for.

The Dam.jpg

Much as in the case of Town Is by the SeaThe Dam deals with landscapes, and, above all, with changing landscapes. The story is of a town in Northumberland which was once rich in farms, people, and music. After the people left, it was to be flooded to create a lake, but before the dam was built to flood the valley, a father and his daughter bring music back to the abandoned town one last time.

Even typing those words evokes the feeling of loss so skillfully engendered by the story and makes my eyes prickle. Somehow, even though I have never been there, author David Almond and illustrator Levi Pinfold manage to bring the lost town so to life so vividly, and yet in such muted colours, that it both feels familiar and distant. Why should I feel like crying over a place utterly unknown to me? More than that, I’ve never been attached to an analogous place: the town where I grew up was small, it’s true, but was in no danger of abandonment. So why do I feel the ache of familiarity as my eyes scan Levi Pinfold’s beautiful illustrations (in charcoal, ink, pastel, and digital media) and read David Almond’s masterful text?

Two elements spring to mind: a) The music which is evoked by text and illustration seems to hover just on the edge of hearing. The rhythm of the text isn’t quite poetry, but feels very like it; the illustrations never outright attempt to “record” music (if such a thing were possible in art), but it’s suggested in the flitting rhythm of the dancing ghostly figures. Music easily speaks of loss; whether or not it’s familiar doesn’t seem to matter to, for example, Verdi. When art and text evoke music, it’s all over– my self-control is gone. b) Art, text, and music all draw the book together to make the town itself a character in its own story. It ceases to be a distant place I’ve never visited and becomes a dearly-loved friend: the music becomes elegiac, mournful, almost funereal. We go from being readers to attending a memorial service.

So, I warn you, this is a beautiful, haunting book, but beware of that word: “Haunting.” I read it a few weeks ago, and read it with my Changeling, too. We both loved it passionately.

And it has been sitting on my bedside table since then. Shelving it seemed somehow disrespectful, so it’s been haunting me from that table ever since. I’m hoping that having written this I’ll be allowed to shelve it now.

It’s autumn, now, and autumn is a good time to say goodbye, I always feel. So step out and get this book, and say goodbye to a long-drowned town with me.

And then play some music.